Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why We Wear the Ashes

Said Musa was released from Afghani custody on Feb. 25.
That was something of a miracle, because he was about to be tried and sentenced to death for converting to Christianity, an accusation he doesn’t deny. According to Afghanistan law, conversion from Islam to another religion is unlawful and the sentence is death – and there is no exception, said an Afghani prosecutor.

It was only because of intense international pressure that the Afghanistan government found it convenient to let Mr. Musa go and leave the country. An amputee himself, he had worked for 15 years for the International Committee of the Red Cross fitting other amputees with prosthetics. He was a father and a husband.
And, he had come to put his faith in Jesus in eight or nine years ago. He was arrested in May after appearing on a television broadcast affirming his faith in Christ.

During his nine months of imprisonment, he said he was tortured in every way, and mocked and humiliated by both jailers and fellow inmates. He wrote an open letter to our president, and to every other Western leader, asking for the kind of pressure that ultimately did lead to his release.
His letter is a testament to a faith in Christ that knows the stakes: in broken English he wrote, “I agree with long imprisonment about my faith, even for long life. Because I’m the sinnest person in the world. ... I also agree with died on cross of my pride. I also agree with the sacrifice [of] my life in public. I will tell the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ son of God and other believers will take courage and be strong in their faith.”

Although Mr. Musa was freed, he was not alone, and other believers in Jesus in Afghanistan and other countries suffer imprisonment, torture and the threat of execution in the wake of having put their faith in Jesus.

Ash Wednesday was born in a world like that.
In Afghanistan today, to come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the savior of the world and my savior, who loves me, gave his life for me and bids me lose my life for his sake that I might find my real life in him, is not just words.
And in other places and times on earth, it has also been literally true that to follow Jesus was to risk losing everything – from job to family to life itself. It was that way for the earliest Christians when Rome rose against them. And the memory of that time was still fresh in the Gentile parts of the world where the church grew in its early centuries.

By the fourth century after Christ, those who had come to Christ in faith and wished to join themselves to his church were initiated into the church in baptism, which usually took place on Easter Sunday, after a three-year period of teaching.

As that auspicious baptism date drew near, these new ones were assigned a 40-day time of fasting, reflection and repentance: after all, to join the church publicly, was to risk a real physical death.

Of course, the Bible says that to join the church in baptism is to die to one’s old life and to be reborn to a new one, but this needed less explanation when it actually did entail huge social, financial and perhaps the ultimate loss.

So, it makes sense that one should examine oneself carefully before taking an action with such enormous consequences. One should examine one’s heart for leftover allegiances to a world which the scriptures tell us is passing away. One should reflect on the things that are still loved more than Jesus and his kingdom – because those things are the soft spots of our souls that invite Satan’s attack. And one should repent of these unworthy loves and less-worthy allegiances, and believe the good news of the kingdom of God…because we aren’t just pretending here: the stakes are high!
In the fourth century, when this practice began, the rest of the congregation, in solidarity with the new believers, joined them in their time of reflection and repentance – and the spiritual practice of Lent was born.
Thus came the ashes of Ash Wednesday. From dust we came and to dust we return. This world can threaten us with death, but whether we die at the age of 110 in our beds or at the hands of those who seek to turn us from our faith in Jesus, though a physical death is on the calendar for us all, there is a kind of death we will never experience, if we have been joined to Christ: Jesus entered that death – the separation from God because of our sin - for us, and rescued us from it. And then Jesus told us to take up our cross, die to our old lives, and come follow him into eternal and abundant life.

To wear the ashes is to embrace Christ’s death and the death of our old selves and to walk into the new life of baptism with our eyes wide open. It is to embrace our faith that Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said that the one who wants to save his life will lose it,
but that the one who loses his life for Jesus’ sake will find it…that life joined to Christ, welcomed by the Father and empowered by the Spirit lasts forever, and is a life worth living even if others kill me for it.

Said Musa knows the truth of this, and though he is free of Afghani prosecution, he is a man marked by the ashes of being willing to die for his knowledge of Jesus as his savior.

But we who live in a world where the cost doesn’t seem as high are prone to forgetting that this world is not just disinterested in God but hostile to him. Friendship with the world is enmity against God, James wrote. Not friendship with people – Jesus demonstrated how to be friends with anyone and everyone – but the scriptures say that there is a kingdom of this world that isn’t interested in giving up power or authority to God, that seeks to rule in God’s place and actively resists God’s ways.

We all live in that kingdom every day, and its messages soak into our hearts and minds. You could say that the kingdom of this world is killing us softly with its own song, and we are unaware of the bars of its stealthy persecution closing around us as our minds and hearts are wooed from what it means to love God with our whole selves.

So Ash Wednesday now speaks to us, and invites us into a holy Lent: to examine the state of our hearts and minds…to consider the crazy claims of Jesus and to say “yes” to him again in the midst of a world that lies to us about who we are and who God is. To examine what other loves we have put on his throne in our affections, to listen carefully to leading of the Holy Spirit about our sin, about our self-deceptions, about the grievances against others and refusal to forgive that we have nurtured in spite of God’s commandments, about the love we have withheld from the unlovely and about the flirtations with destruction we have permitted in our lives.

We wear the Ashes to say we have died by faith to the kingdoms of this world. We have died to the lies about what ‘real life’ is and to the temptation to be – or to invent – our own god.

God help us, we believe in Jesus who came to us, who showed us how loved we are by God, who healed us, lifted us up, fed us, gave us a new name and a place in his kingdom and told us he would never leave or forsake us, not even should a new worldly king arise who wants to kill us for our faith in him.

We wear the ashes to say with Peter, you are the One with the words of eternal life, where else would we go? We wear the ashes to agree with Paul, that we have died already since we are united to Christ in his death, and our real life is hidden with Christ in God, and will only be revealed in its fullness and glory when Christ comes again.

We wear the ashes to say we are in this world but not of it, and though he slay me, yet will I trust him.

For me, wearing the ashes feels like a determination of the will, to take my mind and heart where they naturally do not want to go – into my own soul with the Holy Spirit illuminating the dark corners to see what I have allowed to fester there in my own moments of doubt, fear and selfishness. It is a decision to repent, to turn, to rethink, to wake up and become aware.

It is only safe to do that because Jesus came to cleanse me from my sinfulness and my unworthiness by bearing it himself on the cross. He is not interested in my heroic attempts to be holy apart from him; instead, he comes to the one on her knees who says, if you are willing, you can make me clean…and he says, I am willing.

We wear the ashes to say we will take seriously this next 40 days, to ferret out the things that have claimed too much of our hearts, that we might give our hearts to Jesus.
We wear the ashes to say we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds, that the ongoing monologue of our consciousness might more resemble the words of Christ.
We wear the ashes to say, the kingdoms of this world can’t really kill me - Christ has already died for me – I am determined to live in his life-giving power and to turn from everything that gets in the way of that.

The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that it is in our baptism that we identify with Christ’s death – almost as though in baptism we are inserted into Christ, joined to him, so that his death is our death, his life our life, his resurrection our resurrection, and his welcome home by the Father, our welcome home by the Father.

How ironic, then, that the authorities in Afghanistan became aware of Said Musa’s conversion, because an Afghani television station aired a video tape of aid workers conducting a public baptism. In other words, it was baptism’s proclamation of death and new life
that prompted a very real threat of physical death to Said Musa. Almost as though the kingdom of this world wanted to say, did God really say that in Christ was life? Do you believe it, Said Musa?

We, too, will be confronted some day in some way, by an evil demand to know whether God’s promises are true. We wear the ashes to say yes and mean it and proceed to live a real repentance.

May God grant us a holy Lent.

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